ANDREA OTTE shares learnings from Aguadas, a program she introduced in Issue 10’s “Vision Check,” examining how it could provide a blueprint for farmworker inclusion in this 25 Magazine online exclusive.
In places such as Colombia, where the regional style of production means that farmers oversee processing from cherry to dried parchment, the role of workers is integral to the daily activities of the farm. In 2016, a pilot program was created by the Aguadas Cooperative, in collaboration with RGC Coffee and Solidaridad, to address labor security and workplace protections within their region. Now in its third year, and with another cooperative signing onto the program, the Aguadas project has provided a blueprint for what farmworker inclusion could look like in the Colombian context.
Macro Challenges in Coffee Farmwork Today
Throughout the world, coffee production as we know it today relies on millions of rural workers, primarily employed on a temporary and informal basis. Recognition of their key contribution as a foundation of the supply chain has largely been absent in industry discourse, or has been redirected towards landowners. Recently, as has been widely reported, many farmers have been operating below the cost of production as global coffee prices hit historic lows. These low prices have a knock-on effect for workers at farms and processing facilities, with low pay and unreliable employment pushing many workers to leave coffee altogether.
In the Global North, reputational risks for brands whose supply chains may contain labor abuses are increasing. New legal frameworks, such as the UK’s Modern Slavery Act, are being created to hold businesses accountable for meeting human rights requirements within their supply chains. At the farm level, the pressure to meet labor standards while simultaneously to operate more efficiently and sell at lower costs can aggravate the farmer-worker relationship. Certifications, many of which include worker protections, also involve a great deal of paperwork and resources, particularly as more and more certifications crowd the field. To complicate matters, some farmers are turning to labor intermediaries, who connect farmers with workers looking for temporary jobs. Labor brokers, as they’re sometimes called, often increase the risk of recruitment abuses, debt bondage, and human trafficking.
Because coffee farm work is frequently temporary and informal, workers perform work in other sectors throughout the year, moving from farm to farm. Permanent workers, who are more likely to be legally registered and receive benefits, are becoming less frequent, reflecting a global shift towards increased informality and reliance on temporary labor. For solutions, some have pointed to local governments and labor organizations, such as unions. However, a lack of written contracts combined with the rural nature of farm labor makes government monitoring difficult. The reality is that no one segment of the industry can bear responsibility for this issue alone, nor should farmers be expected to survive with diminishing or negative returns due to the cost of labor.
Is there a way to engage this issue’s multiple stakeholders to find a solution? I believe there is. What follows is further detail about the case study introduced in Issue 10 of 25 Magazine, which describes a multi-stakeholder project working directly with farmers and workers in Caldas, Colombia.
The Aguadas Project: Year Three
When the project began in 2017, one of the initial challenges was simply understanding the workers themselves. So little work had ever focused on their specific needs that the project developers had no existing blueprint on how to engage them. Even those studies that did exist were rarely helpful, as each region has a particular type of labor engagement, informed by local histories and dynamics. In the department of Caldas, where the Aguadas Cooperative is located, most of the workers live and work in the area, with a relatively low percentage of migrant workers. This was a benefit to the program, because they could engage the same workers over a longer period, but it also reminds us of the particular challenges of working with migrant labor, an area which this study did not address.
One of the hurdles for the program was overcoming distrust between farmers and workers, two groups which have at times been at odds with one another. Angela Pelaez is the project manager and Sustainability Director for RGC Coffee, who has worked on the project since the beginning. For her, addressing this distrust means getting farmers and workers together in the same place. In the Aguadas cooperative, though many of the farmers and workers come from the same community, opportunities to see each other outside of their jobs are limited. To bring them together, the program held town hall-style meetings, but further than just meetings, where the groups might feel hesitant to speak their minds, the project created activity days filled with games and recreation, where members of the groups could interact with one another beyond the employer-employee relationship.
After gaining worker’s trust, Angela says, it’s about focusing on their day-to-day needs. For many workers, the toughest parts of the program to gain buy-in were those that involved planning for the future. As was mentioned many times in our conversations, workers need security in their immediate lives before they have the ability to worry about the future. Targeting issues like savings and insurance were more difficult, but concerns about health and safety were easier. Many workers had stories of past injuries which had catastrophic effects on them and their families, issues which were made worse because of a lack of savings or insurance. By combining tangible, immediate improvements with conversations about long-term changes, the program was able to meet many of its goals.
The project also provides job training on such topics as pruning, picking, and processing techniques, which improves skills for the workers and adds value for the farmers. Finding these mutually beneficial aspects for both groups has been one of the keys to success. In another example, one of the most popular parts of the program with workers has been the installation of cable cars which run up and down some of the area’s steepest cliffs, used to transport the heavy sacks of cherry to the washing station. This reduces one of the most backbreaking and dangerous aspects of the job, provides the workers with a greater sense of security, and also lowers the risk of on-farm injury for their employers.
Though there have been significant wins for the program, they have also needed to continually reassess the efficacy of the work. Some programmatic elements have been changed or revised as it matures. As the dynamics of the local economy change, without the process of talking to participants, testing ideas and making adjustments, the impact of the work and the trust between the farmers, workers, and the organizers would be lost. Angela has mentioned that the organizers feel a particular sense of responsibility with the Aguadas project, because so little work has ever specifically targeted workers in Colombia. They want to not only provide a safer, healthier workplace for the participants but to prove to the wider industry that strategic engagement with workers can produce tangible benefits for local and international economies.
Now in its third year, organizers have noted the program’s success despite many challenges during this recent period, including low prices and increasing opportunity costs elsewhere in the country. As Angela points out, the Fairtrade funding mechanism has been crucial to its success, but it has required the coop to allocate funds to the program that would have otherwise been used elsewhere. This decision was made by vote, with the members of Aguadas deciding that the benefits of labor security and workplace wellbeing were fundamental to their overall success. To continue, it will require that the cooperative is able to successfully market and sell their coffee, that the Fairtrade premium funds remain adequate to cover the programs costs, and that the laborers and farmers to continue to find value in it.
ANDREA OTTE, a Trader and Marketer at Twin & Twin Trading, holds an MSc in Development and International Business from the University of London. Special thanks to Angela Pelaez, RGC Coffee, and the members of the Aguadas Cooperative. To learn more, visit: www.rgccoffee.com.
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 Sheridan, 2016.